Discovering Dresden!

Dresden is one of the most beautiful cities in Germany, but once you get there – you will immediately want to leave!

Perhaps you will hop onto one of the steam-powered paddle-wheelers and cruise along the Elbe River to the magnificent Kurort Rathen, in the famous Saxon Switzerland. Excellent hiking awaits you, or just find an outdoor café and relax. My wife and I enjoy garden railroading, so we visited the Eisenbahnwelten (Train Worlds) garden railroad. It was fantastic!

Clock tower of the Prince's Palace, Dresden, Germany.

Clock tower of the Prince’s Palace, Dresden, Germany.

Other popular destinations served by Dresden’s large fleet of paddle-steamers include the beautiful and relaxing Schloss Pillnitz, or world-famous Meissen, where you can tour the “Dresden China” factory and then explore the town and striking castle.

Once back in Dresden, you’ll leave town again for Radebeul Ost, where you can board a steam train of the Lößnitzgrundbahn, which will take you to Schloss Moritzburg.

Actually, there are quite a few excellent narrow-gauge railroads in Saxony, all using steam locomotives. Any of them would make a great day-trip from Dresden, but you will have to drive or take a “regular” train to reach them. My favorite was the Zittauer Schmalspurbahn, near the borders with Poland and the Czech Republic. This 750mm gauge railway carries families and tourists from Zittau to Bertsdorf, then on to either Jonsdorf or Oybin. Chris and I went to Oybin and were captivated by the simple charm of this quiet village and the mountaintop castle-and-monastery ruins.

What? You’ve run out of time? But, you haven’t even seen Dresden yet! That’s the way we felt after our first visit in 2011, so we went back for a longer stay in 2013.

Dresden is the capital of Saxony, and has regained its status as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Germany, although it is by no means crowded. It is a city with many beautiful buildings and bridges, and a history rich with culture. The people of Dresden take great pride in their city; much of it was reconstructed by private donations!

Close-up of decorative work on the portal of the Semper Opera, Dresden, Germany.

Close-up of decorative work on the portal of the Semper Opera, Dresden, Germany.

The recently rebuilt Frauenkirche is symbolic of Dresden’s rebirth, but landmarks such as the Zwinger Palace, Semper Opera, and Royal Palace are also among the most admirable attractions. Just so you know, it is mandatory that you stroll along the Brühl Terrace every evening!

You will certainly enjoy the Dresden Transport Museum. We also visited the Strassenbahnmuseum (Streetcar Museum) and were pleasantly surprised by the size of the collection and the quality of the restoration work.

On a sunny day, consider the Dresden Funicular Railway, and the Dresden Suspension Railway. You will eventually end up with a magnificent view of the Elbe, and Dresden (in the distance). It rained like crazy when we tried it, so make sure you check the weather forecast while you are still considering this option. This adventure also involved what seemed like a lot of jumping on-and-off streetcars and a few long walks, so discuss the logistics of this outing with your hotel concierge before starting!

Our two trips to Dresden totaled about nine days, which simply was not enough. Dresden and Saxony are so inviting that we hope to go back a third time, soon. Discovering Dresden is a continuing process. It’s like I always say: “Dresden is one of the most beautiful cities in Germany, but once you get there – you will never want to leave!”

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Tourist Trains Guidebook

Do you and your family like heritage trains? Do you often plan your vacations to include a ride aboard at least one so-called “tourist” train? Tourist Trains Guidebook provides you with a convenient, everything-in-one-place directory of tourist trains in North America.

Chris Star on the Napa Valley Wine Train, California

Chris Star in the dining car of the Napa Valley Wine Train.

Before continuing, allow me to make one thing perfectly clear: the editors at Kalmbach may be experts on North American trains, but they don’t know squat about North American geography. The White Pass & Yukon Route railway is listed under “Alaska/USA” which implies it is an American railroad! As everyone with a brain knows, the WP&YR has always been a Canadian railroad, currently owned by a company in Ontario. The listing should have been under the “Yukon/Canada” section.

Other than that dastardly misappropriation of Canadian heritage, Tourist Trains Guidebook is excellent and will help you discover train-related attractions just about any place you travel in the USA, and also lists the relatively few tourist trains in Canada.

Coming to Alberta in 2014? All of the local heritage trains are represented in the Tourist Trains Guidebook, but here are some important updates:

  • The Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions is home to steam locomotive No. 6060, the largest steam engine still operating in Canada. That is to say, when it is actually operating. It did not run in 2013 and apparently will not be running in 2014 either. All is not lost, however, because there is a smaller steam locomotive in service as well as a diesel locomotive. Chris and I rode on this railway once and enjoyed the overall experience.
  • The steam locomotive running at Fort Edmonton Park died in 2013, while we were visiting the park (it wasn’t our fault – honest!). Their website has not updated the steam locomotive’s status, so it may not be running in 2014.

If you are going to Ontario, you will want to ride aboard the Algoma Central Railway in late Fall, to experience the total riot of Fall colors. Tough luck, you’re too late! Earlier this year, ACR owner Canadian National announced that it was shutting them down at the end of March (now postponed until the end of April). It seems CN was collecting a hefty subsidy from the Canadian government, but the subsidy got chopped in this year’s budget. Poor capitalist babies! When asked by concerned citizens if CN would reconsider and keep this very popular tourist attraction open, they simply quoted former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau: “fuddle-duddle”.

The popularity of heritage trains continues to increase, and Tourist Trains Guidebook will help your family enjoy your vacation, wherever the heck you go!

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The Zittauer Schmalspurbahn – Full Steam Ahead!

Are you planning a trip to Germany for your family? Do you like steam trains? Head for the best, and skip the rest! Head for Zittau and climb aboard the Zittauer Schmalspurbahn.

Never heard of the Zittauer Schmalspurbahn? Don’t feel bad, the Zittauer Schmalspurbahn is not well known even in Europe, and is virtually unheard of in North America.

The Zittauer Schmalspurbahn (ZOJE) maintains a small fleet of steam locomotives in a remote area of Germany, near the borders with Poland and the Czech Republic. This 750mm gauge railway carries families and tourists from Zittau to Bertsdorf, then on to either Jonsdorf or Oybin.

Chris and I wanted to ride the train and explore the stations, which have been carefully restored by local volunteers. At the Bertsdorf station, there is a working signal box still in use. Chris was “volunteered” to throw a switch for one of the steam trains as it left the station!

Across from the station, the inviting Hotel Bahnhof Bertsdorf has a fine restaurant, featuring a G-scale model railroad that brings your drinks to your table! Chris and I are both garden railroaders and enjoyed this unexpected surprise. An even bigger surprise awaited us.

We ride steam trains because it’s fun! It doesn’t matter where the steam train goes (as long as it also brings us back). Many times, the actual destination is nothing to brag about. Well, we hadn’t reckoned with the Zittauer Schmalspurbahn!

We travelled along the line from Zittau to Oybin, in early September (2013) when it was fairly quiet. The little village of Oybin welcomes everyone with its beehive-shaped mountain, fascinating castle and monastery ruins, and lovely cemetery in the woods. Although pilgrims have been visiting Oybin for centuries, it has not turned into a tourist trap.

The good people of Oybin don’t need to trap tourists; by providing a family-friendly destination and staging enjoyable special events throughout the year, tourists keep returning. Local tourists, anyway. The rest of us are lucky to discover Oybin “by accident” and visit once.

You should go there, on purpose. Before you do, study their website and Facebook pages. Maybe you would like to see a medieval tournament? How about a procession of monks walking from the town, through the woods, and up to the monastery ruins? There are so many activities and special events shown for 2014 that by the time you make up your mind, it may be 2015 already!

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Great Railway Journeys of Europe

Insight Guides is a major publisher of travel guides, each of which contains railway information when appropriate. Great Railway Journeys of Europe may have started out as a compilation of the information in all of those regular travel guides, but as of 2008 it was without equal.

Live Steam at Ampflwanger Museumsbahn, Austria

Live Steam at Ampflwanger Museumsbahn, Austria

The book is divided into chapters featuring railways within each country, and a final chapter for railways that travel across two or more European countries. The beauty of Great Railway Journeys of Europe is in the hundreds of color photos; the value is in the details provided for the various railroads.

First published in 2002, this book was last updated in 2008 and then reprinted in 2011, by which time it was already out-of-date. Today, it is also out-of-print and that’s too bad – it remains the only book of its kind. I found “my” copy at the library. If you are planning a trip to Europe and would like a concise guide to the major (and some minor) railways, hunt down a copy of Great Railway Journeys of Europe (Insight Guides, 2011).

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